I was sitting in a small family owned Vietnamese restaurant in Georgia the other day recalling one of our favorite destinations in Vietnam while I waited for what became one of our favorite dishes. I could smell the aroma from the kitchen and watched customers coming in and out of the restaurant. I wasn’t sure how it was going to taste, seeing as I’m back in GA, but once I took the first bite I was almost instantly transported back to Hue. No, I wasn’t sitting on a tiny stool around a wobbly table ordering by pointing to other’s people’s meals, but I loved every bite of the savory Bun Bo Hue just the same.
Ok, so what was it really like in this city you may ask? Well if you remember, we left Hoi An on an early afternoon bus.
Hue is a city is sort of divided by the river with the historic Imperial City on one side and the newer touristy city on the other side. The bus stop was again beyond the edge of the new part of town, but we happened to see one of the green MaiLinh Taxis passing by (one of the legitimate companies that doesn’t cheat customers) and rode into the city to our hotel. We entered the Than Thien Friendly Hotel and surprisingly got a sweet upgrade. We had booked a small room for $15 a night (including breakfast for 2), but received a large suite and were obviously quite happy. From there we stopped by the front desk and booked a few tours through the hotel including a visit to the enormous royal tombs nearby, the Imperial City and Citadel, and of course eating lots of incredible local dishes. The only catch was that we also booked an overnight trip to Phong Nha for a cave tour right in the middle of our visit to Hue, which meant we would have to coordinate a lot of things to make it work.
We discussed all the options with the kind hotel staff and made a plan for the next few days and headed out for dinner. Whitney had compiled a list mostly from the Southeast Asia on a Shoestring book of restaurants and specific foods that we “had to try.” Our first stop was going to be the closest on the list, Hang Me Me Restaurant for their dumplings. It’s important to note that of all the places we’ve been where the establishment owner’s imitate the well-known originals, Hue wins for being the boldest. For example, we followed a map to the address for the restaurant and looked around to see four, yes FOUR, completely different restaurants with exactly the same name. These just happened to be right next to the “Four Seasons Hotel,” which was clearly a dodgy guest house. Anyway, with encouragement from the sidewalk staff member we made our way into one the four Hang Me Me Restaurants and opted for a variety of rice paper dumplings called Banh Beo. Overall though, I may have hyped them up in my mind and only found them to be just “OK.” It wasn’t until the next day that we realized we went to the wrong one. Anyway, it hit the spot at the time and after our usual ATM stop we settled in for the night.
The next morning we scarfed down a quick breakfast at the hotel and then met our guide out front for a full day tour of the emperor’s tombs and the Citadel. (FYI, all the tours are about the same and often joined together to fill a bus, so I’d say just book the tour with your hotel on arrival for the best price…we paid about $13 each for our full day tour and that included lunch and transportation…we paid an additional $16 each for the entrance fees to the tombs and Citadel but as I’ll explain later it was well worth it). It was just before 8am when we set off to the royal Tomb of Minh Mang. We followed along as our guide gave us a brief description of what we were seeing as we passed up and through the Minh Mang Pavillion and beyond.
After wandering on the grounds we met back up with the group to travel to the very impressive Tomb of Khai Dinh. Walking up the large stairway we were greeted by a number of statues of soldiers guarding the tomb.
Then upon entering tomb we are drawn to the impressive statues that sits in the center of the room surrounded by the beautiful and intricate décor and architecture.
From there the tour continued over to a small Martial Arts studio for a short Kung Fu presentation. It was an unexpected stop, but still entertaining.
Next, we continued on to the scenic landscapes of the Tomb of Tu Duc, where a variety of pavilions overlook a small pond. It was not a bad place for the Emperor and his wife to rest in the later years before reaching their final resting places behind the pavilions.
Following a short lunch, we continued on to the historic Imperial City in the heart of Hue. Our guide led us through what used to be the Imperial Capital City until the mid 1900s, where he pointed out areas of the Capital Citadel, the Royal Citadel, and the Purple Forbidden City. Many parts of this were destroyed in the war, but all that remains and has been restored was well worth visiting. We could have easily spent most of the day wandering through and reading about it all. Even though our time was limited, it was still nice to have a brief intro on this tour.
Our final stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda perched at the top of the steep shore of the Perfume River. We paused momentarily at the Buddhist temple behind the 7 story pagoda to observe the monks in prayer then made sure we got our token photos near with this unofficial symbol of the city. To finish out the day we took a river boat down the calm Perfume River to soon seek out another one of the recommended restaurants for the night.
On our second day we didn’t have any specific plans. We only wanted to indulge in a couple more meals and get ready for our getaway to Phong Nha. We slept in a little, then set off through the city hoping to find some new Nike knock-off shoes for Whitney. We tried to find a local market for something super cheap, but the language barrier sort of ruled that out. From there we made our way to Lien Hoa restaurant. This one was a bit of a trek from the tourist area. However, once we found it full of local Vietnamese customers, we knew we were in the right place. Tip: You can always judge the deliciousness of an Asian restaurant by the number of locals actually eating there. On a recommendation from our little book we ordered a large hot pot containing fresh veggies and tofu (it’s a vegetarian restaurant). It came with a side of noodles and cooks in front of you at the table. We also ordered several side dishes (our eyes always bigger than our stomachs), with the highlight being a crispy fried jackfruit seasoned in honey and sesame seeds.
From there it was back on the hunt for shoes. It’s not hard to find a decent pair, but make sure to try them on because there are no true standards to these things. We had to laugh each time we picked up a pair of shoes that supposedly go together yet had very different soles. Anyway for about $20 Whitney eventually found some knock-off Nike’s that would work and we got back to the hotel just in time to catch our bus out of town. Check out our upcoming article “Caving in Phong Nha” to see how that trip went.
Soon enough we were back in Hue for another quick 24hrs of deliciousness. We arrived back in Hue late afternoon ready for either a late lunch or early dinner. Either way it was time to eat after such a busy and nearly sleepless 48 hours. Feeling as if we needed another round, we ended up going right back to Lien Hoa restaurant for another hot pot (this time ordering the smaller size) and a side of fried jack fruit. It was just as good the second time around and I’d highly recommend going there.
If you haven’t noticed food is my thing, so we tucked in early that night to be ready for the main event here in Hue which was our exciting food tour. At mid-morning on our final day, we met our food tour guide. It turned out that Whitney and I were the only ones and ended up on another private adventure. First though, I have to say I absolutely refused to ever ride in what I’ll call the “tricycle wheelchairs”, but when that’s the only option for that food tour I was certainly on board. So once we settled into the “wheelchair” for a couple snaps, we set off on the tour.
The first stop was a simple noodle soup for breakfast with the usual tasty sticky rice in banana leaves. Next it was time for our morning brew at Café Paris where we savored the strong Vietnamese coffee with an accompanying breakfast bun.
Next we crossed over to the old part of the city where we got an in depth tour of the local market. As I’ve said before, we love cruising through the markets to see all the fresh produce and welcome any opportunity to learn what everything is as we go.
From there it was time to head back across to the restaurant that created the original Bun Bo Hue. The tasty soup mix of meats, vegetables, and noodles was still the best one we had in all of Vietnam. I think the restaurant is called Bun Bo Hue, but don’t quote me on that. Then, it was time for an afternoon snack…I wouldn’t actually call it a snack when it’s only minutes after the last one, but we still headed over to the next restaurant for some rice paper dumplings. These definitely made up for the ones we had our first night in town. Finally, we concluded our food tour with a small sweet rice pudding dessert. It wasn’t milky like rice pudding in the US, but was quite sweet with the coconut milk.
As they say, “all good things must come to an end.” We were ok with that though since we couldn’t possibly take another bite of anything. We got back to the hotel with enough time to change to something more comfortable to catch the overnight bus to Hanoi. Overall, Hue surprised us, especially with all the amazing food. And nothing beats exploring a city with locals especially when you end up on a private tour. Having thoroughly enjoyed the last couple stops in Vietnam, it was time to meet up with some friends from NYC to see what the big city of Hanoi had to offer.